Nigeria counts votes after tight election hit by long delays

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Lagos – Nigeria tallied votes after a tightly contested election on Saturday, with three front runners competing for the presidency of Africa’s most populous democracy in a ballot marred by long delays.

Nearly 90 million people were eligible to vote for President Muhammadu Buhari’s successor, with many Nigerians hoping their new leader would tackle a widening security crisis, the sluggish economy and growing poverty.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks during the launch of the new Nigerian currency in Abuja, Nigeria November 23, 2022. File picture: Afolabi Sotunde/ REUTERS

For the first time since the end of military rule in 1999, a third serious candidate has emerged to challenge the dominance of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

The three-way race sees former Lagos governor and APC candidate Bola Tinubu facing PDP’s Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president, and surprise third party candidate, Labour’s Peter Obi, a one-time Anambra State governor.

Nigerian presidential candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu arrives at a polling station before casting his ballot in Ikeja, Lagos, on February 25, 2023. Picture: James Oatway/ REUTERS

Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, smiles during an interview in Yola on February 25, 2023, during Nigeria’s presidential and general election. Picture: Pius Utomi Eepei / AFP

Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi talks to the media at his house in Amatutu on February 25, 2023, before polls open during Nigeria’s presidential and general election. Picture: Patrick Meinhardt / AFP

In Lagos and other cities, eager crowds gathered to watch counting in polling centres, where ballots were tallied by hand before they were sent on electronically.

“One! Two! Three!” people counted out loud together as the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) presiding officer held up the ballot papers to crowds at one polling station in southern Port Harcourt.

“I want to make sure it’s transparent and that the election is free and fair,” said Juliette Ogbonda, a 30-year-old hotel receptionist, watching the counting.

Nigeria’s past elections have often been tainted by fraud and vote-rigging claims. PDP’s candidate Abubakar claimed fraud when he was beaten by Buhari in the 2019 vote before the Supreme Court dismissed his lawsuit.

“Polling units in a large number of areas have closed and we started the counting of ballot papers,” INEC Chairman Mahmood Yakubu said.

Voting was meant to end at 1.30pm, but by nightfall, angry voters were still waiting to cast ballots after INEC started late or problems with identification technology disrupted them in parts of Lagos, southern Port Harcourt and the north-west state of Kano.

The INEC said people who were still in voting queues could cast their ballots.

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In south-east Anambra State, officials counted votes at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, where crowds of voters danced.

But desperation was clear in another nearby centre.

“It is not normal. I will wait all night, I came to vote and I will,” said student Blessing Mbanefo, 21, waiting to vote. “I’m ready to sleep here.”

The INEC has not said when the official results will be announced though it is expected over the next few days as tallies are uploaded on an online portal.

Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officials tally ballot papers during the counting process at a polling station in Ibadan on February 25, 2023, during Nigeria’s presidential and general elections. Picture: Samuel Alabi / AFP

Three rivals

The success of Nigeria’s vote will be closely watched in West Africa where coups in Mali and Burkina Faso and growing Islamist militancy have taken the region’s democracy back a step.

Whoever wins Nigeria’s presidency must manage Africa’s largest economy beset by a host of complex problems, from a grinding jihadist war and bandit militias and separatists to high inflation and widening poverty.

But Saturday’s vote went ahead mostly peacefully.

Several Lagos polling booths were ransacked, according to INEC, and voting at 141 polling units in southern Bayelsa State would take place on Sunday after the ballot was disrupted.

Voters will also cast their ballot for Nigeria’s two houses of parliament, the National Assembly and Senate.

Buhari, a former army commander, steps down after two terms in office, with critics saying he failed in his promises to make Nigeria safer.

The APC’s candidate Tinubu, 70, a long-time political kingmaker, says “It’s my turn” for the presidency. He can count on APC’s structure and his political network.

He faces a familiar rival – PDP candidate Abubakar, 76, who is on his sixth bid for the top job and touts his business experience.

But both are old-guard figures who have fought off past corruption accusations.

The emergence of a surprise third candidate appealing to young voters, Labour Party’s Obi, 61, has thrown the race open with his campaign as the candidate of change.

Cash shortages

Fuel and cash shortages caused by a bank note exchange in the run-up to the election also left many Nigerians struggling more than usual in a country already hit by more than 20% inflation.

To win the presidency, a candidate must get the most votes, but also win 25% in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states.

If no candidate wins, a run-off will take place within 21 days between two front runners – an unprecedented outcome that some analysts say is a possibility this time around.

The rules reflect a country almost equally split between the mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, and with three main ethnic groups across the regions: Yoruba in the south-west, Hausa/Fulani in the north and Igbo in the south-east.

Voting also often falls along ethnic and religious lines: Tinubu is a southern Yoruba Muslim, Abubakar is an ethnic Fulani Muslim from the north-east and Obi is a Christian Igbo from the south-east.